It was 1975, in a Playboy Club Resort in Wisconsin. Ricky Nelson serenaded his former teen fans in a small dimly-light, smoke-filled nightclub where malted drinks didn’t mean ice cream, but single-malt scotch in ice-filled tumblers. Everyone was a little older, but for those moments, transported back to a time and place where swooning and sock hops were daily pastimes.
In the 1950’s, Ricky Nelson was at peak celebrity status, with teen girls swooning over him and teen boys copying his hair and clothes in an attempt to get girls to swoon over them. In every jukebox in America, he had hit records. In every home in America, his face was seen every week.
After an hour or so back in the 1950’s, my father burst back into the future and our hotel room with an excitement I had never seen before.
“Kids, you will never believe who is downstairs,” he panted with glee. “Come on, he said he would sign a few autographs and take pictures with you.”
Curious and excited, my brother, myself and our friends, all teens, hastily abandoned our board game in progress to check out which celebrity we were about to meet. My father was still keeping us in suspense.
At the entrance to the hotel lounge, there were my mother, my mother’s friend and my father’s friend all standing next to this man. My mother and her friend were standing on either side of the strange man, just looking up at his tall stature. Their gaze was unbreakable and frankly, “goofy.” And their smiles were a little creepy and unnerving, like they were stuck in a trance. My dad’s friend was standing next to them, drink and cigarette in hand, with a giant grin of satisfaction.
“Kids, look, it is Ricky Nelson!” my dad exclaimed.
In an instant, my brother and I looked at each other and then our friends and then back and forth with the same blank expression telepathically communicating the same question. Ricky Who?
In the 1970’s, his songs were not in any jukeboxes and his face was not on any TV set. He was invisible to the teens of the current generation.
To be polite, we forced smiles on our faces, stood next to the strange man and posed for pictures, while he autographed bar napkins for us. He was very nice. He took pictures with all of us, amid our teen confusion, the adult men peacocking and the adult women, yes, giggling. We all thanked him and went on our way, still bathed in complete bewilderment, while our parents basked in the after-glow of excitement.
“Who was that guy, anyway?” my friend blurted out, when we were safely in the privacy of our hotel rooms.
It was a standoff. We teens all looked at them with complete vacancy, while they simultaneously looked at us with equal disbelief.
“Ricky Nelson!” they exclaimed in synchronous chorus.
“Who?” we replied in equivalent confusion.
Then they looked at each other with immediate clarity. There is no reason we would know who this was. For years, he was king in their world, but he didn’t even exist in our world.
Nearly a decade later, a news story reported the death of teen idol Ricky Nelson in a plane crash. I felt sympathy for his family and fans, but secretly couldn’t help but wonder if the autograph was going to be worth something someday.
I still have the autograph. Not because it meant anything to me, but because it was a shared family memory, meeting a celebrity. Three and half decades later, according to Memorbilix.com and Google, the autograph is worth $73.50.